woensdag, juli 7, 2021

‘User-friendly justice is the best way forward’ - A dialogue with lawyer and researcher Tim Verheij

What good is justice if it is too complicated? Tim Verheij, lawyer and researcher at The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL), has researched this thought-provoking question for many years.

In 2021, he published a report describing and analyzing The Hague's ‘justice gap.’ The Hague, which houses many prestigious human rights organizations, has been branded as the international city of peace and justice. However, not all citizens have access to The Hague’s local justice system. How can we serve and empower these citizens in their search for justice? And which changes need to occur, inside and outside the justice system, to facilitate this empowerment?         

On May 19th, 2021, Initiatives of Change (IofC) coordinated a Zoom dialogue with Tim Verheij as part of IofC’s Faith in Human Rights project (FiHR). During this session, Verheijpresented his observations on the justice needs in The Hague, also inviting the participants to  think of alternative solutions to this problem.

‘Most human rights organizations want to do good’, Verheij emphasizes at the beginning of his presentation. ‘The municipality of The Hague genuinely wishes to improve the quality of life of its citizens. However, care providers are not always equipped with the right tools to achieve this aim.’ According to Verheij, groups that suffer socio-economic inequalities face all kinds of problems that affect their quality of life, despite the city’s effort to safeguard their human rights. As a solution, Verheij suggests an evidence-based and practical approach to seeking justice for vulnerable groups. These groups include, but are not limited to, asylum residence permit holders, single mothers, and those affected by illiteracy and/or poverty.

The human rights issues that these groups face tend to hit close to home—quite literally. Through extensively surveying the target group, Verheij has been able to gain insight into their justice needs. As the data indicates, they struggle with, among other things, neighbor disputes, divorce disputes, financial worries, and inadequate accommodation. Surprisingly, neighbor disputes tend to have
the lowest resolution rate. When asked whether care providers and/or legal experts have offered an adequate solution to their
problem, a significant number of people replied neutrally or negatively to this question. Why are these people not receiving the help they need?

As Verheij points out, vulnerable groups do not always wish (or know how to) navigate the complicated and often inaccessible justice system. Certain cultural values might also dissuade someone from seeking help. Family issues, for example, are regarded as deeply shameful in some cultures. Vulnerable groups also display a general mistrust towards authority. Instead, they prefer to seek help from places and people they are familiar with. ‘Some groups tend to have lower trust in institutions. They might seek resolution through other channels: through teachers, friends, and family, for example. They might also seek help from community centers’, Verheij says. ‘Furthermore, not everyone has access to juridical experts, care providers, and human rights institutions because accessibility does not always improve for everyone: think of those lacking digital skills or experiencing a language barrier.’

In response to Verheij, one participant aptly points out that the language barrier works both ways. The care provider or legal expert might not possess the (intercultural) communications tools to understand and communicate with the care seeker. ‘Language should not be an issue in this case’, another participant replies. ‘Newcomers need to learn an adequate level of Dutch: that is their duty.’

Another participant disagrees: ‘If we want to make human rights accessible to everyone from the start, we should work with what people can know, not with what they should know. Yes, participating in society is a duty, but access to understandable information is the right that comes with that duty.’ Verheij agrees with this sentiment. ‘Just translating letters and words is not enough to inform people’, he says. ‘Solutions should be provided through local, scalable one-stop shops, that is, places where people receive the help they need without getting caught in a web of complicated language and bureaucracy.’

Verheij brings up another vital question: which tools do legal experts and care providers need to provide inclusive aid? ‘We should strive for user-friendly justice’, Verheij says. ‘This means, among other things, giving advice that is transparent, accessible, and understandable. We must also understand that legal advice is only one part of the solution. That is why we should continue to invest in and work with community centers. We should use a holistic approach that integrates the legal with the personal, cultural, psychological, and so forth. This holistic approach addresses the problem fully, and not just the juridical aspects of it. That is why I prefer to speak of ‘treatments’ rather than simply ‘legal advice.’

Verheij adds: ‘We should not exclusively turn to the academic or legal debate on human rights for solutions as this does not always translate well into practice. Instead, we should focus on practical, evidence-based solutions. We should learn how to solve and prevent one problem at a time, fairly and effectively. In other words: I am arguing for a justice system that is accessible to all, regardless of one’s cultural background, level of education, or socioeconomic status. This user-friendly justice is the best way forward.’

A participant concludes the session by arguing that user-friendly justice should, ideally, encourage self-reliance and self-sustainability. ‘The solution is not to provide the perfect solution, but to empower people and encourage them to find their own way to justice themselves.’

By Shereen Siwpersad

For more information about IofC's Faith in Human Rights project, click here.